May - High Spring
Despite a prevalent wind from the north for the first few days of May, southern weather fronts brought vital rain and then some balmy tropical humidity to Wicklow.
Butterflies were at first few and far between, but then began to appear in heartening numbers. For many people the sight of Orange-tips is the very essence of spring. But there were even more Green-veined Whites on the wing, in gardens, meadows, pastures and even woodland. The aggressive territorial Speckled Woods have also returned, and the stunning, dainty irredescent Holly Blue butterflies. You might see a bright red and black butterfly in the meadows at this time of year: it's actually a beautiful poisonous Cinnabar Moth, a day-flying moth species that looks extremely like a butterfly when seen in flight.
And so too have the equally colourful Large Red Damselflies returned to their haunts, frequently seen basking on sunny leaves or fence posts.And they're not a lone: alone walls you can see tiny Zebra Spiders hunting. They are the most common species of jumping spider in Wicklow, creeping up and suddenly leaping onto their prey.If approached they will do something very strange for a spider...they lift their heads and look right at you with two huge front eyes that resemble binoculars.
Along the same walls and fences you can also see Jewel or Ruby-tail Wasps. These are a species of parasitic wasp that lay their eggs in the nests of other solitary wasp species. Their bodies are made of a gorgeous irridescent armour. When they are attacked by other creatures, Jewel Wasps can roll into an impregnable ball. Beautiful and amazing insects.
By the beaches of Wicklow the terns are making a splash, quite literally. Both Little Terns and the far larger Sandwich Terns can now be seen flying in small squadrons only a few metres offshore. While they dive into the sea in pursuit of tiny fish, big Grey Seals can often be seen dozing nearby, their big angular heads poking out of the sea, eyes closed and uplifted to the heavens.
But in the most ordinary gardens the most extraordinary creatures can be seen, such as the magnificent fox-red Tawny Mining Bees, which have black heads, making them look as though they are wearing fur coats over their normal suits. But they are not the only mining bees. Far more common are the smaller Andrena haemorrhoa bees, which were seen in a huge mating scrum in April. By May the females had all built little nests for themselves, consisting of tiny burrows surrounded by circular mounds of earth. Thanks to the enormous dandelion bloom this year they have no shortage of pollen. The females can be seen surveying the land from their burrow entrances, and will sometimes dare to approach a human being for a closer inspection. They are remarkably gentle and curious little bees, and very handsomely coloured too.
Dandelions are good for humans too, and the leaves make for a succulent salad, commonly served in continental Europe, particularly in France. Strangely enough, they are rarely eaten in Ireland despite being entirely edible and absolutely thriving in our climate. The young leaves are extremely tasty when served with mayonaisse on bread.
These are not the only worthy wild foods proliferating in Wicklow in Spring. Right now, before the June bluebells take hold, it is the time of Ramsons, the Wild Garlic. Seas of their beautiful white flower clusters are covering the floors of deciduous woodland, but don't betray any scent whatsoever. Only by crushing the flowers does the aroma of garlic reach the nostrils. Both the flowers and fleshy leaves make a terrific salad, and can be cooked in a variety of ways, just as the bulbs are, but don't leave a smell on the breath.
Ramsons do well now that the deer have moved into the hills with the retreat of winter, to graze the lush mountain pastures before the bracken rises from the soil. Wicklow deer are somewhat unique, being largely a hybrid of the Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) and the Japanese Sika (Cervus nippon). When Sika Deer were introduced to Wicklow in the late 19th century, it came as a great surprise that they were able to breed with the much larger native Red Deer. However, not only could the species successfully cross-breed, but the hybrids were also fertile. The reason is, we now know, that the Red Deer and Japanese Sika are actually the same species, but somewhat different due to the Sika having been isolated on the islands of Japan for a long period of time, or so it seems. Technically there is no greater difference between the Red Deer and Sika than between Irish people and Japanese people.
Many nestling birds have already begun to fledge. In the rivers and streams you can find female mallards with small groups of ducklings, like a teacher with a class. They keep to the shallow streams until their education in dabbling and foraging is completed. The duck has quite a responsibility to get so many young prepared for a life on the water. A flotilla of little ducklings and their mother is a wonderful sight in high spring. Unfortunately mallards drakes offer little or no assistance in the raising of the chicks, unlike many male birds with are devoted fathers.
Although summer is now approaching, the evening skies are still filled with the big Maybugs, better known as the Cockchafer beetles. These beetles spend a year living as a grub in the soil, feeding on the roots of grasses and dandelions, and then emerge as beetles from late April until early June, when they breed. They rest during the days and at night the female emits a pheremone and the male uses his cock's comb antennae to detect the scent trails leading to his mate. So long as these beetles fly, it is still spring in Wicklow.